Commentary

How does Jimmie Johnson stack up?

Updated: October 12, 2010, 6:09 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- During Sunday's NASCAR Live! race chat, one of you suggested that Jimmie Johnson wouldn't be in position to win his fifth straight championship if Dale Earnhardt were alive.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus
Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCARAn unbeatable combination the past four years: Jimmie Johnson, right, and crew chief Chad Knaus.

You said this even though you were reminded that Earnhardt would be closing in on 60 years of age and be long retired from the sport, that he didn't win a Sprint Cup championship during his last six competitive seasons.

Then another of you suggested that Johnson was good only because of crew chief Chad Knaus.

So the theory was taken to David Pearson, who should have been voted into NASCAR's first Hall of Fame class instead of waiting until Wednesday to see whether he'll be in the second class.

His response?

"[Johnson] wouldn't be winning them all if I were driving today, either," Pearson said.

That response should have been expected. The Silver Fox wasn't shy about how good he was back in the day, and he's not today.

"I ran for [the title] three times and won it three times, so …" explained Pearson, who's second on NASCAR's all-time wins list with 105.

It's hard to argue with that. Even Richard Petty, whose 200 wins and seven championships are considered the sport's standard, had Pearson as his first choice to be among the Hall's inaugural five last year.

"Pearson could beat you on a short track, he could beat you on a superspeedway, he could beat you on a road course, he could beat you on a dirt track," The King once said. "It didn't hurt as bad to lose to Pearson as it did to some of the others, because I knew how good he was."

Petty and Pearson -- maybe even Earnhardt -- might be saying that about Johnson if they were competing together. One thing about great drivers: They recognize other great drivers.

"He's good, and he's smart," Pearson said of Johnson.

That's a mouthful from a man of few words who doesn't easily dish out compliments. But Pearson knows good and smart. He was known for saving his car for the end of the race, seemingly coming from nowhere at times to win or finish in the top five, just as Johnson does today.

Pearson appreciates what Johnson has accomplished and the greatness of his team, even though he admittedly doesn't go to or watch many races these days because there are too many rules and too much politics involved.

Look at the numbers if you don't believe that Johnson doesn't belong among this elite four. In 321 starts, Johnson has 53 wins, 130 top-5s and 197 top-10s. He's won four consecutive titles -- Earnhardt, Petty and Pearson never won more than two straight -- and is leading the points with six races remaining in this season.

After the same number of starts, Earnhardt had two titles, 36 wins, 138 top-5s and 202 top-10s. Petty had one title, 46 wins, 162 top-5s and 209 top-10s. Pearson was well on his way to his third title with 56 wins, 166 top-5s and 212 top-10s.

If you're going to consider that Johnson wouldn't have won as many races and titles if Earnhardt or any of the others were around, consider that maybe they wouldn't have won as often had Johnson been around.

And if you're going to argue that Johnson wouldn't be as great as he is without Knaus, consider that Knaus might not be as great as he is without Johnson.

As Pearson is quick to remind us, "It takes the whole thing. It's not just one person. It takes it all."

[+] EnlargeDavid Pearson
Rusty Jarrett/Getty ImagesDavid Pearson on four-time defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson: "[He] wouldn't be winning them all if I were driving today, either."

One thing is for sure: Johnson won't have to wait around as Pearson did last year the first time he becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame. There may have been more written about Pearson's being left out of the class that included Earnhardt, Petty, Junior Johnson, Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr. than the inductees themselves.

Let's straighten one thing out, though. Pearson wasn't angry or devastated that he wasn't selected, even though he was asked repeatedly to show up for the news conference.

"Everybody thought I was mad because I left so fast," said Pearson, who won 33 times in the 63 races he finished 1-2 with Petty. "What it was, Cotton Owens' wife was sick and he rode with me. I knew he had to ride back with me. When I stopped and done a TV interview I couldn't find him, so I left to look for him. I wasn't mad."

If Pearson had a vote, he would have put Raymond Parks, Lee Petty and many of the drivers who dominated the sport in the beginning ahead of him, Petty and Earnhardt. He wouldn't have considered France Jr.

Pearson went so far as to say a year ago that if Parks wasn't in the next class and he was, he'd decline the nomination. He's backed away from that since Parks died earlier this year at age 96.

"Now since he's dead I understand he might not ever make it, not for a while," said Pearson, who swears he knew the first class three weeks before it was announced. "If I don't go in on account of that, they never would vote me in."

Nobody ever said Pearson was vanilla as they have Johnson. Had he been more politically correct and signed half as many autographs as Petty, he probably would have been a no-brainer for the initial class.

But Pearson wasn't one to bite his tongue about the governing body then, and he's not now. He's almost as angry as Richard Childress that Clint Bowyer was fined 150 points because his winning car in the Chase opener at New Hampshire was sixty-thousandths of an inch over tolerance.

"[NASCAR] didn't want the man to win the championship, that's all you can say," Pearson said. "I know it's harsh, but that's the way I feel and a whole bunch of people feel.

"I never liked the dadgum rules. I can tell you a bunch of things they s--- me out of."

Such as?

"Now, I said I could tell you a bunch, but I ain't going to," Pearson said with a laugh. "I tell you this, we argued once whether I got the white flag or the yellow flag. They handed me a black-and-white picture and said, 'You see all these people in the grandstands? They don't have on no yellow shirts. Those are white shirts.'

"With a dadgum black-and-white picture. Now how stupid was that?"

Pearson was a lot like Kyle Busch in that all he cared about was winning. Public relations was not his thing. He used to wait for Petty to emerge from the dressing room, then slip out around him when the crowd was distracted.

He once skipped the postrace interview after a win at Dover and headed for the airport. Told he would be fined for skipping media responsibilities today, Pearson grumbled, "That's what's wrong with NASCAR today. They tell you what to do and when to do it. That's just like the dadgum rules."

You won't ever hear Johnson talk about the governing body that way. He's as good at saying the right thing as he is driving, which makes him a lock for the Hall whenever he becomes eligible.

Pearson should have been a lock last year. The person in Sunday's chat who suggested that Johnson wouldn't be in position to win five straight if Earnhardt were alive should have used Pearson instead. One could argue that Johnson is better than Earnhardt because he drives cleaner and gets better results.

"Earnhardt would have won more championships than he did if he'd have kept his head," Pearson said.

And Pearson would have won more championships had he run more full-time schedules.

"I will just say I won it every time I ran for it," Pearson reiterated.

When you talk about greatness in NASCAR, start with Pearson, who, by the way, will be on hand Wednesday when the second class is named.

"Yeah, I reckon so," he said. "I ain't going to do no speeches, though. I just don't do that."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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